Landmarks in Life: Vital Events and Vital Statistics from the Proofs of Age

Michael Hicks discusses the rites of passage recorded in the proofs of age.

Everybody's life today is defined by birth, death, and (optional marriages), for which we all have (or our heirs have) certificates to prove it. These stem from the introduction of universal civil registration in 1837. Before that, from 1538 but not at once everywhere, there were the parish registers that record baptisms (not quite the same as births), marriages, and burial (obviously after deaths). There is no such automatic registration before 1538, but the proofs of age reveal that dates of birth were often noted by the officiating priest in service books [1. E.g. CIPM xxii.530. Although this analysis is based on CIPM xxi-xxvi, all examples are from CIPM xxii.] or in a personal book of hours by the family. [2. Ibid.]  Some proofs include witness testimonies that the details were noted down by the priests,[3. Ibid. xxii.530.] but the written evidence was never produced as evidence in court. There was never an obligation to retain such books, which were rendered obsolete by the Reformation, and very few now survive. Survivals have not been systematically searched for this information.[4. Perhaps they should be, as the way in  which the date was recorded (e.g. Thursday after the feast of St Lawrence) has a bearing on the reliability and potential uses of the proofs themselves.] The clergy, godparents, mother, midwife and other women (e.g. attendant on the labour) were never among the witnesses, information always being less direct, from men who never attended childbirth itself.

Inquisitions post mortem and proofs of age are a partial substitute for the parish registers and have been used to illuminate the demography of the English aristocracy. [5. L.R. Poos, J.Oeppen, and R.M. Smith, ‘Re-assessing Josiah Russell's Measurements of Late Medieval Mortality using the Inquisitions Post Mortem', in Companion, ed. Hicks.] lPMs are generated by the deaths of feudal tenants. Always they record the fact and date of death (but virtually never the funeral), the identity and approximate age of the heir, sometimes the heir's birthday and by deduction the precise date of birth, although not infrequently the calculation is out by a year or more.  Baptisms could be performed by midwives out of church, but those recorded in the proofs never were. Often the proof makes it explicit that the baptism was on the day of birth or at least the morning after the night before.  The prompt is generally a church event or saint's day, but the witnesses often recall the date by other occurrences, some relating to other services in church such as yet other baptisms, marriages, funerals, masses, churchings and confirmations. Those involved in these events are not the focus of proofs and generally cannot be researched further: Holford has shown how more can be discovered about IPM jurors.[6. M.L. Holford, ‘”Thrifty Men of the Country”? The Jurors and Their Role',  in Companion.]

Although there are problems over the credibility of the proofs of age, whether the events they record actually happened or were copied from other proofs,[7. M.L. Holford, ‘Testimony (to Some Extent Fictitious): Proofs of Age in the First Half of the Fifteenth Century',  Historical Research lxxxii (2009).] they had to be credible – had to indicate the ceremonial attached to baptisms, the sort of activities that went on in church, how quarrels were reconciled, the accidents that commonly happened, and were thus representative of religious, social and other activities. Similarly they do reveal much about the landmarks of fifteenth-century English life. Baptisms, marriages and funerals are staple landmarks, sometimes explicitly infused with emotional pleasure or distress,[8. CIPM xxii.530.] often accompanied by celebratory drinks, receptions, or wakes. They are not all however. Forty days after the birth should have been the ceremony of purification of the mother, her churching, apparently an occasion for celebration and often followed by a meal.[9. CIPM xxii.360, 361. These two proofs, bar names, are very similar.] Less than forty days actually appears the norm in the proofs of age. Some IPMs record the confirmation of the infant:  for example of Nicholas, first born son of John and Joan Merden, that day born at Stratford Tony and confirmed at Salisbury by the bishop and died. [10. CIPM xxii.828.] Confirmation does not feature in bishops registers and is almost wholly unrecorded. These sparse indicators deserve more attention. Apparently godparents were not involved. How long did the obligations of godparents last? Some proofs also recall betrothals. Betrothals, under canon law as binding as marriage in church and perhaps the signal for intercourse to commence, were also landmarks to be remembered.[11. CIPM xii.230. There is ambiguity in the terms used and faithfully preserved by the calendarer. ‘Married' and ‘betrothed' are clear enough; ‘espoused' and ‘affianced' less so.]

Besides these, however, there were other landmarks. Today we might emphasise landmarks in education, such as first day at school, A Levels, matriculation and graduation, in sexual development (first girl friend, intercourse, cohabiting), career (first day at work, promotions, retirements) etc. Proofs of age record some medieval equivalents, e.g. binding as an apprentice.[12. CIPM xxii.829-30.] Because they relate to an activity in church (baptism), they do record more systematically landmarks relating to the church: ordinations, first mass, inductions, and professions. Occasionally ordination, e.g. of a witness' son elsewhere, is explicitly recorded.[13. CIPM xxii.364.] Evidently the proud father was there. More commonly it is by allusion, that the performer of the mass had been ordained long before – ordained as priest therefore. Perhaps ordination into minor orders, as a subdeacon or deacon, mattered too, but it is only ordination as a priest that is cited. Once ordained, the priest was eligible to celebrate mass and surely did not delay until long after – ambiguously short though the phrase ‘long before' has been revealed to be in IPMs.[14. Companion, 19.]  No doubt the first mass wherever celebrated was an important landmark. Often however the proofs are explicit that this was the first mass by the celebrant in this particular church and observed by his father.[15. CIPM xxii. 360, 361., 364] Occasionally they state after appointment.[16. CIPM xxii. 360-1.] Given that there is so little to explain the presence and livelihoods of the lesser clergy revealed at parish churches in visitations, this hint of formal appointment is of considerable interest. Additionally the baptism is sometimes dated by the institution and induction of the parson.[17. CIPM xxii.360, 361. 364.] Institutions are recorded in bishops' registers, when induction was ordered. Inductions were often by proxy for clergy who might be absentees and never even visit their living. Induction in person of a parson by archdeacon or dean was an obvious occasion for ceremony and remembrance, but is rarely recorded. And finally witnesses not infrequently note the dates of profession of sons and daughters as monks and nuns in a variety of religious orders and religious houses.[18. CIPM xxii.228, 363.] It was sometimes the eldest son who entered the church or monastery. [19. CIPM xxii.189.] These reveal something of the social and geographic origins of monastic recruitment. Such memories therefore can illuminate some of the operations of the late medieval church. Some at least of these entries may be collated with other sources: institutions,  the ordinations of those mentioned (and the titles cited at ordination), visitations, other ordinations of religious,  and election lists. [20. There is a risk, of course, that these entries are fiction too.] Such collation remains to be done.

Some medieval rites of passage are therefore the same as our own – births, marriages, deaths – but we have others that they lacked. Besides these, however, fifteenth-century people observed others – churchings, which should have been as numerous as births, confirmations, betrothals, ordinations, first mass and the first mass at a particular church , inductions in person, and monastic professions were landmarks both for those concerned, for their fathers, and – presumably – for their families as a whole. Proofs of age are markers for more than the aristocrats whose ages are proved.